Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Severo Sarduy, Cobra (1972) and Maitreya (1978)


Sarduy (1936-1993) was a Cuban writer. Here we have a Dalkey Archive volume that collects two short novels, according to the back cover copy "his two finest creations." According to that same copy, he was "the most outrageous and baroque of the Latin American boom writers of the sixties and seventies," so that's cool.

He certainly seems to have been an interesting guy: after helping with the Cuban revolution, he became a permanent expatriate in France; openly gay, he was, in addition to a novelist a playwright, poet, essayist, painter, and broadcaster, and he hobnobbed with people like Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan. The unfortunate fact of his dying of AIDS seems somehow overdetermined, but he lived quite a life, for sure.

Cobra concerns a transsexual dancer at a burlesque club/brother who is obsessed with the idea of transforming herself; she travels to Morocco and India in hopes of doing so, with several others. That's the first half of the book; it's all extremely ornate and, yes, baroque. But the second half is where it really takes off: she/he is initiated by a gay, leather-fetish biker gang, whose members may be transfigurations of the dancers from the first section (or not); subsequently, they somehow turn into Tibetan Buddhist suppliants, and Cobra's personality splinters/dissolves in a very Gravity's-Rainbow-esque way: a cobra is a snake, obviously; it's also an avant-garde art movement whose name comes from the members' hometowns, COpenhagen, BRussels, and Amsterdam; it's also a form of the Spanish verb cobrar (to receive or collect); and several others. In the end, maybe, she/he becomes the destroyer/renewer god Shiva.

This reminded me, actually--this is a super-pretentious thing to say, but it really did--of Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, that seminal--and really, really strange--book of psychoanalytic and postmodern theory. That came out in 1980, so too late to have actually been an influence, but Deleuze and Guattari were active before then, and based on what I know about Sarduy, he definitely read them, and probably knew them socially. I'm not necessarily saying they were a conscious influence, but it's what I thought of, and it perhaps helps to illustrate how idiosyncratic Cobra is.

It's safe to say that it isn't for everyone. If you want a book where you know what's going on most of the time, probably not your thing. This is definitely one of the less novelistic novels I've read: not only is it basically plotless (which is common enough); it also only barely has characters, really. But I found it amazing and exhilarating, whatever it is. Just my thing, and, honestly, what I might've hoped The Obscene Bird of Night would be like.

Somehow, I found I didn't care for Maitreya as much. Is it because it has, sort of, more of an actual, traceable plot? Or is it because it's harder to understand, even on its own terms? Both these things may be true. It concerns some Tibetan monks who, after an attempt to escape Chinese oppression (one of them is some sort of bodhisattva, maybe) end up in Cuba. They're we're also introduced to two twins, known as Lady Divine and Lady Tremendous, who as children have miraculous healing powers and when they lose them after menarche, gain preternatural operatic talent (this part is perilously close to being conventional, accessible magical realism. Don't worry, though; it doesn't last long). They all go to Miami, and from there to pre-revolutionary Iran (don't ask; I don't know). It all sounds cool, and I don't know why I bounced off it when I didn't its predecessor. It's probably worth revisiting sometime.

Anyway, that's Severo Sarduy, a stunningly original writer whom I might well have never encountered.

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